Episode 74

Whitney Cowell

Rewards and Culture: The Key to Retaining Talent in the Supply Chain Industry

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In this episode, Adam is joined by Whitney Cowell, AVP of Marketing at KCH Transportation. Whitney shares her experience of building a marketing organization within the supply chain industry, which is a differentiator for the company. She talks about the challenges of recruiting the right talent, the importance of having people who are excited about the company while also having the skills to contribute to the team, what differentiates KCH in marketing, and more.

Highlights from the conversation:

  • Whitney’s background and experience (0:55)
  • KCH’s growth in marketing (4:07)
  • Creating a uniform message (7:27)
  • Building a content machine in supply chain (10:19)
  • Recruiting the right fit (11:03)
  • Managing growth in a changing economy (14:09)
  • Company culture and rewards (16:02)
  • What’s coming next for KCH? (17:10)
  • Keeping up with Whitney (19:03)


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Transcription generated by Otter.ai

Adam Vazquez 00:23
Alright, we’re back with another episode. And we’ve got Whitney Khalil from KCH Transportation. Whitney, thanks for joining us this week.

Whitney Cowell 00:29
Thanks for having me.

Adam Vazquez 00:30
So Whitney, we were just talking about recently, I’ve had a string of these, like, the haters are just out in full force trying to stop the trying to stop the show from coming to fruition, whether it be tech issues, we were supposed to meet in Vegas for a while, and an ungodly storm came through Dallas. So I feel like we’ve done something just even kicking off this recording. So I’m glad we were able to finally make it. Likewise, yes. So one of the things I was really excited to talk to you about was kind of the I mean, I want to talk all about KCH. I know you guys are going through a rebrand. And you’re building, you know, a whole marketing organization over there. So I want to get to all that. But before that, I want to talk a little bit about you and your background. And specifically, you’ve worked at a number of different companies and different types of companies. And one of the themes I’ve been having conversations recently is like, when supply chain companies are talking to supply chain companies, or when we’re talking to marketers specifically, they’re always very protective of supply chain as different than any other industry, especially when it comes to the marketing space, having been in other industries as well. Why do you think that is? What’s your take on the industry so far?

Whitney Cowell 01:43
I think the industry especially recently has gotten so big, it’s so saturated, that when we find that gem, it’s really hard to give up the source. And so and that’s something that I’ve learned along the way here specifically, is when you enter a market that’s really saturated, or it’s really hot, it’s hot at that time, like even schools are integrating programs to prepare people to go into the supply chain. When you find something that is successful from the marketing standpoint, you don’t always want to give up all of your secrets.

Adam Vazquez 02:16
Yeah, that’s a great point. And it is exciting to see. Because like, while that’s true, I don’t know, the supply chain is known as like the most innovative marketing historically. But now you’re seeing lots of new voices come in, whether it be from other industries, or just, you know, younger voices come in and change that you’re definitely a part of that group. So how did your background lead into what you’re doing and KCH prepare you for what you’re doing now?

Whitney Cowell 02:44
Yeah, so to touch on your point of it not being known as innovative or current industry, it’s because it’s a very old industry, and transportation has been around forever, people have always needed to transport bins, you know, global trade has been around a lot longer than we give it credit for open a history buff, you know. And so far, from my perspective, coming from a background that is adjacent to the supply chain, so I started off in a company that gave me a really good understanding of the mindset of a driver. What are their pain points? What do they need? What do small versus large scale companies look at as far as not just savings, but their overhead costs in general, that role and being in both account management and sales. So onboarding people and learning on the front end their personalities, so they are talking to them every day? And then trying to sell our products to somebody that doesn’t know me yet, it gave me a really good perspective of what does the customer really want? And how do I get to that? On the front end, instead of the back end? Right. I was no longer in a, we’ve made it this far. Let’s continue this relationship. But now I’m ready to start a relationship. And those are very different conversations. As a marketer, I need to know both. So it’s given me a bit of a leg up because I know how to approach those internally and externally.

Adam Vazquez 04:07
Yeah, that’s awesome. So obviously, now you’re leading growth, leading marketing at KCH. You have a ton of access. I feel like every time I get on, like if I haven’t been on LinkedIn or a website for a little while, or your website for a little while, I’ll log on or whatever. And I’ll see. Congrats to our Miami office. Congrats to our Atlanta like there’s always something being opened with KCH. How’s it been being a part of such an exciting, you know, part of that company’s history?

Whitney Cowell 04:36
It’s fun, it’s a bit stressful. Sometimes I look at it and think, Well, we are moving so fast, but at the same time, every move that we’re making is very sustainable. Our new offices are opening because we’re outgrowing the old ones. You know we are promoting from within because we are recognizing the new talent and giving people pathways for opportunity and not just bringing in from the outside to lead our teams, you know, the ones that have been with us that are tried and true and have those leadership qualities now have a chance to step into those roles, which is also, I think, where our retention rate is coming into play as well. Yeah, I

Adam Vazquez 05:13
I remember the first time I met Jason Witten, your CEO, and we sat in his Chattanooga office, and we were talking about all the different things that he wanted to accomplish next year. And what I thought was unique about the way he explained his vision was, it was in terms of the people who are going to execute parts of it. So like, you know, he was talking about what he wanted to do with the Atlanta office and pointing to a person like he’s going to do this, or she’s going to lead that part of it. And so it seems like that has been part of the culture there for a while building around, like you to your point, those solid leaders from within, and then somehow that allows you all to continue outgrowing your previous footprint, obviously, some of that is the markets being hot. And so you know, a lot of people are growing, but you all are way out kicking the coverage, anything that you think has led to that.

Whitney Cowell 06:05
So, as far as Jason’s vision and how that’s impacted us today, you know, he always had your idea that people will come first regardless. And I think that’s shown and you know, our three pillars are internal people, the people that we work with, and then the people in our communities. So to your point about, you know, the leadership piece, and him being able to say you go here, it’s because we’re really strategic, and we still are of who we bring a board. And we don’t just look at this person, check off the skill sets to do this job. But what else does this person contribute? We love outside perspectives. And I think that goes back to what’s happening in the industry at large . We’re starting to see that new perspectives can bring innovation in ways that we didn’t think of, and it can be as simple as starting a committee for that. Or let’s look at this technology that, you know, my customer also used at this company I worked at two years ago, we’re welcoming in new perspectives. And I think for us, the timing was really, you know, when the industry was booming, weak, still kind of flew under the radar a little bit. And now that the industry and the economy is sort of taking a turn, we’re seeing it mid cartwheel at the moment. You know, we have opportunities in front of us that maybe some other people and some other brokerages don’t.

Adam Vazquez 07:27
Yeah, I want to get to some of that and how you’re planning to leverage a downturn, specifically in terms of growth. And your plans for that. But I’m curious, you kind of alluded earlier to working leading growth, leading marketing at a fast growing company like Ach, it comes with a lot of stress, talk about like, what are some of the things you found to be successful in terms of blocking and tackling like, aligning people around a message and you know what I mean? Like, there’s so many touch points at a company like KCH, where so many people are talking to customers? How have you been able to create a uniform message and educate everyone on like, this is what we, this is what we’re going to mark it

Whitney Cowell 08:06
with. Yeah, um, so part of that started with us breaking the mold of having a marketing team, a lot of transportation companies that you’ll find, specifically the three PL space had internal marketing, but they leverage agencies in some capacity for a variety of things, whether it’s monitoring their website for SEO purposes, whether it’s for advertising, if it’s social media, automations, you know, AI is kind of alleviating some of those, right. But we decided, when I came aboard, that we were going to do everything internally, we were going to do whatever it took to make sure that we have a self-sustaining company. And that means finding the talent that can then help not just create the message, but elevate what we already have control over. Are we making sure that our internal employees understand who we are, that these are our company values, and you’re here because you align with them. Let’s also bring that into our conversations that’s customer facing. And once the team was formulated, we were able to pretty easily create collateral. You know, like you said early on, we are looking at releasing a few things in the spring. You’ll see us in a few more spaces. But we were able then to bring people in who are already bought into the company because they’re seeing their successes and their personal and professional life. And have those conversations in each branch actually have what you see? Do you feel this is who we are? Do you agree with it? And from there, we sent out the information, you know, results of those surveys. We all had really big conversations about it. And it turns out everybody’s thoughts were in line. So from the marketing perspective, what can we provide? What will boost that message on the website that might need to be tweaked? Is it sales collateral? You know, what are our customers’ five boxes looking like? And from there, you know, the message the brand builds itself, once we start talking about messaging, and once we started sharpening both the brand and the brand message, and it kind of formed its own ecosystem.

Adam Vazquez 10:18
I love that. I’ve just recently talked with Josh breeze leads content and marketing for a company called freight, or if you’re familiar with the rabbit, and I’ve noticed this trend, he had a very similar approach to building, you know, all of the skill sets internally that you need in order to be have this content machine. And I think that’s so different. I mean, we’ve seen that in retail, we’ve seen that in media forever, but to apply that, within an industry like supply chain is such a differentiator for especially like more in some of the more legacy parts of the industry. What did you find? Like, I would imagine, recruiting might be difficult, or what were there any challenges in actually building that out?

Whitney Cowell 11:03
Initially, recruiting is hot for marketing right now. So okay, we have not had trouble. I would say finding talent, but finding the right fit is really important to me, our social media person that’s doing all the legwork for what you’re seeing on the outside, he actually was an internal hire that came from a different department. Oh, cool. Others have had experience rebranding companies. And so they know what it takes to get everybody on board. That was really important. While we were looking for our graphic design talent, we have people who have some industry background, they’re on their team that are writing, which is very great for us. At that point, then we’re just reiterating what our brand is, who we are as a company, and then we’re not having to teach somebody at an agency who we are, while they’re juggling? I also have seven other clients that I’m working with, and I am trying to live and breathe those brands as well. Every time I shift gears, I could lose sight of that or lose a really important element. So for us, it was really easy people that were excited about the company that had the skills. To me, it was a natural progression, and a pretty specific process followed.

Adam Vazquez 12:20
So I feel like we’ve already kind of talked about some of this just in what I asked you like, what are some of the challenges, and all of those are challenges, but like, I think just probably because you’re an optimist. They have exciting parts to them as well. But what’s the most fun part of building a marketing organization inside of this type of company?

Whitney Cowell 12:39
I think the most exciting part is because this is new for our company. The company is excited about it, everything. Everything that we’re doing. It seems like we just get flooded with emails every time about it. Thank you, this is so exciting. How else can I get involved? Is there a way I can contribute? And that is great for us, because there is so much opportunity for the rest of the company to get in. And to your point about challenges. I think the biggest challenge for people coming in on the marketing perspective is being really excited about one company. That’s not something that a lot of people are used to doing from a marketing background. Sure, yeah. Yeah. And others that maybe have had a company is, you know, how do we make freight look sexy when you’ve maybe come from a different type of industry?

Adam Vazquez 13:34
Totally. Yeah. Yeah. But freights do a good job of doing that on their own with some of these like exits, and things like that. I feel like more and more people are going to find it. Interesting. What about on the flip side? We alluded to this earlier, but obviously, we’re, I don’t know, I remember, I really don’t know what to call our economy at this point. It’s up and down. And but it’s different, you know, than when it was only up. How does that affect managing, managing growth planning? You know, or maybe for you all, it’s different. And it’s an increase in opportunities. How does that work for KCH?

Whitney Cowell 14:08
So as I mentioned before, we were very steady when we had the opportunity to film and I think right now we’re reaping the rewards of patience and planning. It hasn’t been too difficult because we’ve been making strategic choices for a number of years now. We still have freedom to continue making choices instead of feeling like we have to make certain ones match what’s happening in the economy. And I think that’s kind of what is making him stand out at the moment. You know, in the economic moment, we are a bit of an exception to what’s happening.

Adam Vazquez 14:45
Yeah, totally. And so like, give us some blocking and tackling on that. When you say make strategic choices. You could have boomed is that like doing things like paid ad spend versus now having a war chest to go execute how over what’s an example of being strategic that way?

Whitney Cowell 15:03
So there was a lot of freight that was moving, and we could have filled, slim seats, we had teammates that said, you know, I will work different hours, this matters to me too. I see you doing this. And on the marketing front, we had, you know, one, maybe two people invested in marketing, and that was it. So nothing was paid at that point. Because of that now that times are tougher, we can allocate those paid, spend where it matters and catch the catch the harder to get business.

Adam Vazquez 15:40
Yeah, that’s awesome that you keep talking about, and again, reminds me so much of the FreightVana conversation, but about this, about your culture, really just about how, like people willing to stay extra or to work differently? What do you think it is about KCH, that has fostered that, specifically,

Whitney Cowell 16:02
We reward our employees. And I feel like every company is gonna say that really well. Company culture is the forefront of every, that is the social moment that we’re living in right now. That is 2022 2023 messaging. And it’s appropriate because we are seeing new generations enter the workforce. But when the company was founded, and as it’s grown, we haven’t lost sight of that small familial feel. And while a business cannot operate as a family, and we are not naive to that, we can treat each other that way we can check in when somebody says, we can say it’s fine that you can get a doctor’s appointment in a way that works best with, you know, the company timeframe. We like to do outings together, you know, we invest in the teams in the ways that matter to them, and not in the ways that we think it looks good.

Adam Vazquez 16:54
Yeah. Yeah, that’s powerful. And obviously, the outcomes have been tremendous, all the growth that you’ve experienced, and everything that you’re saying. Can you give us any sneak peeks of what’s coming? The rest of the year? Are some of the things that you have planned?

Whitney Cowell 17:10
Yes. So those that are following us on social media may have noticed that some of our graphics are taking a turn, we are not necessarily having a rebrand, I’m calling it a refresh, because a lot of the same elements are going to be there. But we’re celebrating, you know, almost two decades of success. And I think it’s time that we bring our brand up to speed a little bit, and have something that matches the size of the company that we are today. So we’ll be seeing that. We’ll have a few new faces on the marketing side that I plan on introducing, and we’ll have a few new avenues. So we might be proceeding with longer form video content.

Adam Vazquez 17:54
Oh, that sounds exciting. Yeah. That’s awesome. We love hearing about more long form stuff. So we’ll look forward to that. And lastly, I have to ask you, so I told you this in an email, I think but we just recently joined TMSA, you also are a member of that. Are you going to the savannah banners game?

Whitney Cowell 18:18
Yes. So I’m actually on the Education Committee. And our graphic designer, Taylor brownstone is the one who rebranded their annual conference. So she created all of the cool for it. Yeah, yeah. So we, of course, are going to be there and celebrate from start to finish the first elevated conference now that it has a long-standing brand behind it.

Adam Vazquez 18:42
Yeah, very exciting. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know it was your team as well. Yeah. I’m super excited about the event. I’m very excited for be honest about the baseball game. I’ve just heard too much about that brand. So that’ll be it’ll be it’ll be fun. Yeah, that’d be great. If people want to follow along, and just continue to watch your journey as you’re building this brand out. What’s the best way for them to connect with you or or see that happen?

Whitney Cowell 19:03
Yeah, so absolutely connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to chat. I usually set up meetings once a month or every other month with a group of marketers, and we just dive into what we’re doing and help each other out. We actually wrote scripts, which is very nice. For us, you know, somebody if they want to see what we’re doing and the actual outcomes of it, of course, check out kchtrends.com and see the new site when it launches in the spring.

Adam Vazquez 19:29
Awesome. We appreciate your time. Whitney, talk to you soon.

Carlton Riffel 19:32
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